Employee Wellness Option or Policy Matter -Suzy Singh

Ever since the UN included Mental Health in their sustainable development goals in 2015, defining it as a priority for global development, organisations around the world have begun to include this buzzword in their internal conversations. A slow starter initially, the present Pandemic has bestowed a semblance of relevance and respect to the term Mental Health. In this article, I hope to raise some pertinent questions about why employee wellness needs to be a policy matter.

Tokenism or Reality?
Close to a decade ago, I had a revealing conversation with the HR Head of one of the bigger Transnational telecom companies about the importance of mental health, offering to provide counselling support to their employees. After an engaged, hour-long conversation, he leaned over and whispered gently, ‘why would you want to spend your entire day listening to the woes of a bunch of miserable people’. That remark made me wonder if corporate India viewed employees as anything more than mere resources, like machines and capital. Today thankfully, winds of change are blowing through many organisations. Having said that, I truly believe that until Mental Health is accorded the importance of a measurable objective or Key Result Area in each department, it will be limited to tokenism, involving only awareness building through talks and webinars. The real success of this initiative can only be measured through well designed company culture audits.

Feedback or Audits? 
Organisations that believe that mere 360 degree feedback by managers and subordinates, with built in peer based soft skill evaluation and feedback can ensure a healthy workplace culture, are probably choosing to embrace the ostrich syndrome. People, politics and feedback are so intermeshed with survival fears that little truth actually trickles through these processes, making them poor tools for truth and transparency of culture. If good mental health is to be truly seen as the currency that fuels profit and productivity in organisations, then it must be treated and audited just like money is, with as many stringent protocols. Culture climate audits must be carefully developed and strictly followed with call outs and penalties that are democratic and equal across hierarchies. Then perhaps, we can truly hope to solve occupational psychosocial risks at the workplace effectively.  

Optional or Mandatory?

In the current environment, even when talks and events on mental and emotional wellbeing are organised by companies, employee turnout is reportedly quite poor. Is this scanty participation a reflection of the stigma associated with mental health? Or is it because not enough importance is accorded to this subject? Perhaps leading by example and having senior managers attend these events will send out the right signals about how the company places a high priority on attendance. This is likely to step up employee participation and engagement. If reluctant and weary employees can show up for the after party on conference nights only because ‘being seen’ is so important, can’t the mental health agenda be driven in the similar, tried and tested ways?    

Hygiene Factor or Luxury?  
Until the Vishakha Act of 2013 made POSH mandatory for organisations, making workplace sexual harassment a serious matter, the words ‘me too’ meant nothing. Humans work best within the structures of rules and regulations. Until some kind of legal act or corporate policy is developed around assessing, managing and protecting mental health in the workplace, tokenism is likely to be the rule rather than the exception. From a human, psychological and socially intelligent perspective, employees who feel cared for, have a stronger sense of belonging and willingly put more of themselves into their jobs, demonstrating higher loyalty and productivity, a clear organisational benefit. From a business and commercial perspective too, if the days lost to absenteeism due to the impact of work stress and politics on employees are accounted for, coupled with the visible drop in performance when people are emotionally disturbed, the benefits of treating this aspect as a mandatory hygiene factor investment far outview the option of viewing it as a mere indulgence.

Managers Or Counsellors? 

Some organisations around the world are training managers to counsel team members. While this may promote team performance and productivity, expecting managers to morph into counsellors is perhaps too much of a stretch. Firstly, most managers are already too burdened to be able to offer time, space and emotional neutrality that a mentor, coach or counsellor can offer. Secondly, given that responsibility, stakes and isolation increase geometrically as one moves up the hierarchy, senior managers are likely to be highly stressed, needing counselling support themselves. Thirdly, an employee is most unlikely to share their troubles openly with anyone in the system, fearing a backlash. For these reasons, combining managerial roles with the counselling agenda seems like a half hearted solution. It will increase the manager’s burden, but  it won’t solve the mental health problem. Perhaps organisations should consider collaborating with and empanelling coaches, counsellors and mental health professionals, offering this facility either as a free or subsidized service to their employees.

Paid for or Pro Bono?

A prestigious international financial services company got in touch with me just prior to the onset of the Pandemic, wanting me to do a session with their employees about managing stress. All was well until i sent in the commercials, which is when the dialogue ended abruptly. There wasn’t even a closure email. Now while I regularly conduct free talks and workshops for NGOs and ‘not for profit’ organisations, I strongly feel that organisations that work for profit, must pay for these services. Expecting freebies and Pro Bono sessions from experts is a telling insight into a company’s true intent around Employee Mental Health. If an organisation really believes in this cause, it must be willing to pay for the service. Allocating an employee cost per head for managing and sustaining mental & emotional wellbeing, and setting an annual budget, may be a good way to demonstrate corporate intent. After all, if leave assistance can be paid for to allow employees to rest, recuperate and be refreshed, shouldn’t they have an emotional & mental budget too?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.